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When Your Positive Attitude Turns Poisonous

Pratipakṣa-bhāvanam encourages us to look at the bright side. But "good vibes only" overlooks the lessons learned in adversity.

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Unbearable.

That’s how the anxiety feels. I get so crippled by fear that my body shakes, my heart goes into my throat, my stomach drops as though I have dropped, free-falling, off the edge of a cliff. It gets so overwhelming at times, that I literally want to rip my skin off my body and pull my solar plexus out of my rib cage. But because I suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD, which means there’s usually no specific cause to my anxiety, there’s often no specific solution either.

When I try to explain what it’s like when I’m having an anxious episode, people try to help me feel better.

“Just focus on the positive.”

“Have you tried writing a gratitude list?”

“Try to think of this as happening for you, not to you.”

“Look at your life! You have it so good.”

“You’re a yoga teacher. Use your yoga.”

I know these suggestions are well-meaning, because many of the people saying these things are those closest to me. (Ahem, husband.) But even when I ask them to simply listen, positive affirmations still seem to slip out.

Though well-intentioned, these words usually leave me feeling worse. On top of the anxiety, I then also feel misunderstood—not to mention the guilt and shame I experience for not being able to shift my focus to the positive. I mean, I am a yoga teacher. Isn’t it my job to be “love and light” all the time?

Spoiler alert: No.

See also: What Yoga Philosophy Helped Me Understand About Anxiety

“Just Pratipakṣa Bhāvanam It.”

These platitudes seem particularly rampant among my friends and colleagues in the yoga community. And I’ve noticed that they seem to stand behind one concept in particular as a blanket approach to dealing with any trauma, pain or discomfort: Pratipakṣa Bhāvanam.

Patanjali introduces the concept in the second chapter (pada) of his Yoga Sūtra. Yoga and meditation coach Anusha Wijeyakumar translates the term as “replacing negative thoughts with positive ones or substituting opposite thought forms in the mind.” Another common interpretation is, “when a negative thought arises, focus on its opposite.”

At first glance, this seems simple enough: Just redirect your anxious thoughts onto something more pleasant. I’ve even heard the phrase used as a verb before: “Just Pratipakṣa Bhāvanam it.”

But if we look at this sutra in context of the whole book, we see that it is not as simple as finding the positive in every single situation. Instead, Wijeyakumar, who has been immersed in yoga and Vedic philosophy her entire life, suggests that it is less about avoiding negativity and more about embracing reality.

“Our yoga practice was never meant to be about being comfortable all the time or avoiding anything that makes us uncomfortable,” she explains. “It is about leaning into discomfort to create lasting change.” Yoga philosophy acknowledges that suffering is an inevitable part of the duality of life.

See also: Yoga Sūtra‘s Take on Suffering

Bypassing the problem

Many of us misinterpret yoga practice as a means of feeling good all the time. When we do, we may be using our practice as a form of spiritual bypassing.

The term was coined by psychologist John Welwood in his 2002 book Toward a Psychology of Awakening. He defines spiritual bypassing as “trying to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it.”

In the yoga community it may show up as clinging to the spiritual or philosophical aspects of the practice that we interpret as positive, in order to avoid addressing difficult emotional and psychological issues, or even some of the social issues that come up in our yoga circles. Some people may think the practice is a method of avoiding pain rather than confronting it.

Johnnie Mollin, a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist, defines spiritual bypassing as “ignoring, deflecting, or stuffing one’s feelings and living in a fantasy world that doesn’t acknowledge the truth of the current situation.” Mollin, who owns and operates a drug and alcohol treatment center, says this avoidance behavior is so common in recovery that there’s a name for it: “the pink cloud.”

Ignorance isn’t bliss

In a powerful blog post, yoga teacher Shanna Small explained the difference between blissfully ignoring or pushing away feelings (spiritual bypassing) versus sitting with them first and then choosing to walk away from them. In the piece titled “Cessation is not Suppression,” Small—certified in the Trauma-Conscious Yoga Method and a founding member of the Yoga for Recovery Foundation—explained cessation as consciously detaching from particular thought, rather than simply burying it. Being able to do this, she says, is “as a result of a deep connection with the Self that usually happens after a long spiritual process.”

In other words, we can’t just swap out our negative experiences or thoughts and focus on the positive. We need to be in the mess of it in order to process it. Perhaps we will find a silver lining on the other side. Or maybe we won’t. But, as they say, the only way out is through.

Mollin emphasizes that “stuffing your feelings” and ignoring emotions don’t make them disappear. Like anything stuffed to the maximum, our repressed feelings will one day explode—sometimes in dangerous, hurtful, or shame-producing ways. People who try to suppress their feelings may end up exploding. In the world of recovery, it may lead to relapse or even overdose.

He is a firm believer that pain can be a powerful teacher. It is also a natural part of being human. He sees how much better his clients are able to embrace their positive experiences after having faced their pain. That means wading through your emotions as they arise (all of them, not just the pleasant ones) and noticing, without judgement, what you feel.

Pratipakṣa Bhāvanam as yogic activism

Spiritual bypassing is also rampant in the yoga community. The “positive vibes only” ethos has always been part of the culture. But it seems that its prevalence is rising in response to the emotional demands of the times we are living in. Wijeyakumar sees it being used on a social level to “deny systemic racism, negate BIPOC lived experiences, and to erase BIPOC voices.” The same goes for other groups who have been marginalized. When you tell people who are protesting injustice to be grateful for how much things have changed, that’s spiritual bypassing at work.

Philosophy professor Shyam Ranganathan, Ph.D, who authored a translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sūtra, includes Pratipakṣa Bhāvanam in the series of sutras—Sutras 2.33 to 2.35—that cover the yamas, the ethical tenets of yoga. He calls these “the first steps of yogic activism.” From this lens, Ranganathan says Pratipaksha Bhavanam is more focused on “real-world engagement in opposing systemic harm” than simply a tactic to ease personal suffering.  And like Wijeyakumar, Ranganathan sees spiritual bypassing as a product of appropriation and White Supremacy, that “circumvents the ethical and activistic roots of yoga.”

These scholars suggest that Patanjali did not offer yoga practitioners Pratipakṣa Bhāvanam to simply help us feel better when we are suffering. Nor did he offer it as a Band-Aid for someone else’s pain. It is more powerful than that: Pratipakṣa bhāvanam may actually be a method for taking care of one another.

Wijeyakumar says, “Yoga is collective consciousness and love for all beings equally. There is no neutral. Individual liberation is intimately connected to collective liberation.” She says the yoga community must learn not to use isolated pieces of the practice for personal gain or liberation, but rather as a way to “return to love, unity, and compassion for all.”

See also: You Might Be Thinking About Abundance All Wrong

More powerful than positive vibes

When well-meaning people encourage me to bypass challenges in my life, I chalk it up to their desire for me (and them) to feel better about my discomfort. I have learned how to gently educate them on what helps instead. I remind my husband to simply listen when I turn to him. When I’m venting to friends, I tell them, “I don’t need a solution right now, just an ear.”

When it’s your turn to listen to someone else’s fears and concerns, here are some things you can do to help ensure you don’t unintentionally heap spiritual bypassing on them:

Just listen.

Holding space is the act of becoming an energetic container for someone else’s feelings. Just listening and saying nothing can be incredibly hard for some people, especially those of us who like to help others. But the simple act of listening without comment can be incredibly healing for the person you are listening to. Listening without judgment or solution, is like emotionally holding someone’s hand on their journey through their feelings.

Don’t try to fix it.

Oftentimes, when someone comes to us in need of help, we feel pressure to have all the answers. But you don’t need to know what to do. Trying to offer solutions can actually be harmful, as it may end up negating or denying the person’s experience.

Say I’m sorry.

It’s simple, and a bit-open ended but, wow, is it powerful. You’re not apologizing for causing the problem or for not having solutions. Sometimes simply offering compassion is a solution. It lets the person know that you hear them and that you care.

Embrace imperfection.

Remember—and gently remind others—that the goal is not to be perfect all the time. The reality is that we are in human form, having a human experience. This means we’re going to make mistakes and go through rough periods. The beauty of being human is that every time we respond differently within those experiences, we are changing our future (one could say karma or destiny) if only just a little bit.

How to work with your feelings, not against them 

It is sometimes easier to identify and name sensations in your body than to describe feelings. To help identify feelings, it can be helpful to start with the physical. For example, it may be a lot easier to describe how your legs feel while sitting than to feel your emotions.

  • Start by anchoring to what sensation you feel in the present—your bum on the chair or floor, the position of your feet. How is your spine oriented? Are your shoulders softened or hunched?
  • Then notice sensations in the body. Personally, I find that when I observe my anxiety somatically, it’s always moving. At first, it seems like it’s stuck in my solar plexus (that feeling like I’m on the drop of a rollercoaster), but when I pay closer attention, it’s actually much more dynamic. In watching my physical symptoms, I observe them shifting and passing.
  • Then observe your feelings. Recent research suggests that we may experience up to 27 emotions in total! Start to check on the ones we are most familiar with: anxiety, anger, happiness, loneliness, sadness, surprise.
  • Note that you may feel multiple emotions that appear contradictory. This is not wrong, it’s being human.
  • You may also lead someone else in this process. Make sure to have a way to clear your own energy afterward with deep breaths or exposure to fresh air. I even like bathing rituals, like washing my hands or taking a shower.

See also: Everything Will Not Be OK. And That’s Perfectly Fine